Jesus was just this good guy, you know?

This is the second in a series looking at UU theology and language.

cast the nets

from Inherit the Mirth by Cuyler Black

The Unitarian Universalist tradition sees Jesus as a human prophet whose life and teachings provide us with an example of how people should care for one another in this world. The Unitarian side of our tradition arises out of a rejection of the trinity – emphasizing the unity of God – and identified Jesus as a person who was touched by God, but was not of the same substance as God.

With our roots in Prostestant Christianity, Jesus was the prophet for our faith community in the beginning, but as both Unitarian and Universalism moved away from doctrines and creeds, Jesus became one of many prophets from ancient times, comparable to Mohammed and the Buddha. UUs focus on how Jesus lived his life, not on his death or the promise of salvation, considering the essential message of Jesus to be love to God and love to humankind. UUism may have more in common with early Christian attitudes about Jesus. Two former professors from Starr King, our west coast seminary, found that the first 1,000 years of Christianity focused more on creating an earthly paradise then on the promise of heaven in their book Saving Paradise.

Jesus is considered an example of how to serve others with love, generousity and compassion. Jesus demonstrated a loving spirit, a sense of justice, and a fierce desire to serve God and humanity. UUs tend to emphasize the radical, trouble-making Jesus who stood up against authority, who sided with the poor, who looked beyond categories to see people in their wholeness. Some UUs have a strong sense of Jesus as a source of spiritual strength. Our fourth source is “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbours as ourselves”.

UUs do not believe Jesus performed miracles, and not all UUs would even agree that Jesus was a rabble rousing activist. Some see Jesus as a mythic figure, not a real person, pointing to the lack of any contemporary accounts of his life and the story of his crucifixion resembling ancient Egyptian and Babylonian tales of death and resurrection. Others believe he may have been a visionary during his life, but his story has been so refracted and amplified by the Gospels, by Paul and church doctrine and systems, that it is impossible to know the truth about Jesus.

How do you understand Jesus and Unitarian Universalism?

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Spirit

At last Sunday’s service at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga  I spoke about religious language (Found in Translation, January 11, 2015) and the struggles we have as Unitarian Universalists sorting out the words that shape our spiritual orientation. I committed to a blog post each week to explore a word and its meaning in the hopes of helping my congregants (and myself!) to better understand UU theology and vocabulary. We hope to figure out where our common meanings lie, what the differences are; where we can be on the same page, where we might have to compromise, and where we might need a new word altogether.

These comments reflect my current understanding of a word.  Please join in the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments.

by Alannah Lee Clamp

by Alannah Lee Clamp

Spirit

Spirit is the vital principle which animates life but is not itself material. I like to think of it as the whole which is more than the sum of its parts, that part of each living being which expresses its essence. Spirit is linked with breath, wind, air. Like air, spirit can be felt, but not seen, it is ethereal, but also a source of connection. Spirit brings us closer to the living world when we recognize its vital presence everywhere on earth. An awareness of spirit calls us to presence, to pay attention to the here and now. I don’t understand spirit as separate from the body, but rather see spirit and body as integrated expressions of life. I don’t see spirit as a guiding authority or independent presence but as an essential part of being alive and part of the whole.

A sense of spirit is hard to experience – it’s always just beyond my awareness, but I sense it during walks in the woods or when a group of people are caught up in a moment together.  Because of spirit’s ephemeral nature, it can be easy to not notice it. People can live well without consciously experiencing a sense of spirit.  For others, it is an invaluable experience of being connected, of belonging. Seekers are helped by an embodied spiritual discipline such as prayer or meditation or dance, part of that paradox of being present in the body opening us to the spirit.

 

Be a Great Poem

Scott Weber Creative Commons

Scott Weber Creative Commons

A few weeks ago I based a service on one of my favourite texts. This is an excerpt from the reflection. By American poet Walt Whitman, this famous poem is found in the preface of his grand work Leaves of Grass.

This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches,
give alms to every one that asks,
stand up for the stupid and crazy,
devote your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants,
argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people,
take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men,
go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families,
read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,
re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,
dismiss whatever insults your own soul;
and your very flesh shall be a great poem and
have the richest fluency not only in its words
but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and
in every motion and joint of your body.

I love this image of our bodies becoming lyrical poetry, objects of great beauty and rich fluency. Imagine a world where our elders are understood as great poetry.

Whitman’s advice from 160 years ago is still sound. Devote your income and labour to the service of others,
Fight against injustice, examine what authority tells you. Be patient with other people.

And while Whitman was suspicious of church, I think that Unitarian Universalism is precisely a place that encourages this way of principled living. Unitarian Universalist communities are intended as spaces for reflection, to examine all the endless information and opinion that is thrown at us everyday and to dismiss what insults our souls.

We need spaces like this more and more in this busy technological world. We gather on Sunday mornings for a moment of rest and reflection. This time together is time to simply be, as you are. It is for self-examination and understanding.

If we all strive to become great poems, through living our seven principles and being grounded in our six sources,
then perhaps our children will have the same ambition.
Pulitzer prize winning poems will be everywhere!

Imagine that.

Canadian Wonder

A couple of Sunday mornings past I drove down to the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga after spending a few days with my fellow Canadian Unitarian Council board members at the Ecology Retreat Centre in Hockley Valley. We’d had gorgeous weather on Saturday, with the just beginning to colour leaves glowing in the sunshine in the woods. It was a good meeting but I was tired, and feeling a little unprepared for worship as I left the Centre in the pouring rain.

Fortunately, moments of wonder can happen in the most unexpected places.

I drove down Highway 10, passing green forests with an occasional highlight of red-orange brilliance. Shelagh Rogers was interviewing Lenard Cohen on CBC One. Then KD Lang began singing Cohen’s Hallelujah. And I had one of those moments when you simply are in the moment – the pouring rain, the thunk thunk of the windshield wipers, the flashes of autumn colour, Shelagh’s warm tones, Leonard’s raspiness and the power of KD’s voice offering a bittersweet song all combined into a moment of perfect beingness – a feeling that to simply be alive here and now in this place filled with all sorts of beauty was enough. It’s hard to describe these moments of just being, but they allow me to not be me and just be immersed in the present, in presence.

I stopped worrying about the service and had a peaceful drive through the storm.

Here is K.D. Lang’s gorgeous rendition of Hallelujah from the 2005 Junos.

Honouring the Animals

The Makuna people are an indigenous people living within the borders of Columbia.  The Makuna maintain that humans, animals, plants, all of nature, are part of a great Oneness.  Our ancestors long ago, they say, were magical fish who came ashore along the rivers and became two-legged.  As these first land beings began to sing and conduct their lives, everything in the world began to be created: hills and forest; animal and bird people; insect and fish people.  But – here’s the twist – this creation process is still going on.

The world is still being created, right here, right now: our words and actions still determine the nature of the hills and forests, still help create, sustain – or destroy – the animal and bird people, the insect and fish people.

We share a spiritual essence, the Makuna say, with the swimming, flying, four-legged people and all the rest.  They also live in communities, have chiefs and shamans, dance houses and birth houses, songs and rites, even material possessions, as we do.  Think of ants, a bull cariboo, or a black raven, think of bird nests and whale songs, think of territories and prey.

According to the Makuna, our essential oneness with other species is a source of an enormous obligation.  We depend on insect, fish, animal and bird people to eat and live.  In return, the insect, fish, animal and bird people depend on us to spiritually enact, daily, the hidden oneness of all life.  Anytime humans eat, anytime humans gather, anytime we celebrate, we have an obligation to offer “spirit food” to all the other creatures, so that they may celebrate in their worlds.  And if we fail to make such offerings – if we do not spiritually share with other species – they die.  So say the Makuna.

Salmon NationHow do we offer “spirit food” to other creatures?  The native people on the west coast, who depended on the salmon for  so much, used to offer elaborate gifts, dances and feasts to honour the coming of the salmon.  On a rational level it  sounds rather foolish and unnecessary. Yet our industrial selves offered the salmon dams and destruction of most of their habitat.  Wild salmon are in danger. Perhaps we do need a change in attitude. Gifting and feasting and the awareness of our need for other species may keep us human people grounded and connected and careful.

We forget how spiritually alive and capable we are.  Reverence for life, for all the swimming, flying, and four legged people, is a good thing. We should be proud to honour the diversity of life that surrounds us, we should be bold in our appreciation of their great gifts.

What is a modern day spirit offering? Perhaps it is giving our money  to causes like endangered animals or the humane society or reducing meat consumption because of the suffering of factory animals, or the time we take to play with, and care for, our animal companions.  A spirit offering is giving something that we value  – our energy, our focus, our time – to another being or group of beings.

What can we do to recognize and honour the oneness of the world?  How can we turn towards creating a world that sustains and celebrates insect and fish people, animal and bird people?  How do we make spirit offerings part of our lives once more?

from a sermon first preached in 2006.

Eating with Honour

photo from diabeticfoodie.com

photo from diabeticfoodie.com


We eat from the earth
We drink from the rain
We breathe from the air
We live in all things
All things live in us
We are grateful.

I love food. I am greedy for food. I am one of those people who live to eat, not just to live. I would be content to cook and eat and read books about food all day long.  But I find that when my family gets busier with work and school and activities, the quality of our food goes down. We cook quickly or not at all, buy more packaged food, eat more junk because we no longer have the time. Food loses its value so quickly. But I want more. I want to eat in knowledge and in gratitude. I want to eat with grace and honour. I want to eat according to the principles I agreed to when I became a Unitarian.

Our religion is a living religion – still developing our common connections. We do not share beliefs about divinity but principles about how we should be in the world – how we should be in relationship with other people and beings.  But principles are meaningless unless we express them in our daily lives. As James MacKinnon, author of the 100 Mile Diet, says, “When we act in ways that honour our principles we feel fulfillment and a sense of aliveness, of being true to ourselves”. I feel better when we cook from scratch and in season, not because the food tastes better – it doesn’t always as I’m not a great cook – but because I am connecting to my principles. I like knowing that my veggies are grown nearby – I like knowing the names of the farmers and the bakers and the shopkeepers. I want to be embedded – connected – to this place I call home.

As members of a living, growing, forming religion, we are called to pay attention. To pay attention to all that we do in our daily lives:  to keep our daily tasks in line with our principles, to keep ourselves connected to the larger whole by honouring that which we profess to believe. This can be hard to do with so much of our lives attached to computers and machines and meetings and stuff.  But every day we bring the world within us with the food we eat.  Food connects us – biologically, politically, emotionally and spiritually.

How do we eat?  How does what we eat reflect our Unitarian Universalist principles?  How about how we eat? If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and work for justice, equity and compassion in human relations, how can we eat tropical fruits when the farm workers are displaced peasants sick with pesticide exposure? If we respect the interdependent web of existence, how can we eat the misery of caged animals who live their lives standing in their own manure?

With unfortunate ease, of course.  Because we don’t see it.  We don’t live it. We get our bright and shiny food from our bright and shiny supermarkets. Not only do we not have to know, we can’t know. How can we possibly know what the cow’s name was? A single hamburger could be made from the meat of a thousand cows. How can we possibly know the name of the person who picked the apple on the other side of the world in New Zealand? It was probably a mechanical picker anyway.

We have to choose – choose to live our principles.

Good food is everywhere. We can make good food choices that honour the principles of our faith. Not necessarily every meal or every day – the time goes quickly. But we can make choices that connect our food lives to our spiritual lives. That brings us to a sense of aliveness and fulfillment by honouring the inherent worth of every person, by seeking justice in our global food system, by respecting the animals that we depend on.

Wendell Berry, the great essayist and farmer, notes that “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation.  The point is, when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament; when we do it ignorantly, greedily, destructively, it is a desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”

Writer Gary Paul Nabhan says that “eating is perhaps the most direct way we acknowledge or deny the sacredness of the earth.”

Buy local, eat less meat, eat with gratitude. Any of these acts – and so many more – bring our principles to life. They help us remember that our culture, our community, our religion, is stronger and deeper than that of this fast food nation.  Let us let our principles guide our lives so that we may cherish all people and all beings.